Lasagna without meat seems a contradiction in terms, a thing without a center, like an Italian opera without a tenor or a Rose Bowl football team without a quarterback.
Lasagna is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. A hearty, layered stack of wide pasta ribbons baked with creamy ricotta and mozzarella and tangy tomato sauce, topped with browned Parmigiano and accented with Italian spices and herbs, it just about demands the rich flavors of fennel-laced, spicy Italian pork sausage - and maybe a little ground beef - to make it complete.
Lasagna without meat? How does that work? I did a little desultory Googling, but nothing jumped out at me, so I tried deconstructing the recipe: What role does the meat serve? In the absence of meat, what flavors would be needed to fill its role in the chorus? Obviously the meat provides depth and complexity of flavor, texture and protein. So, if we're skipping the meat, let's go to the bench for a roster of vegetables that can substitute earthy, rich flavors and reasonably hefty texture to fill in for sausage and beef.
Suddenly inspiration struck: The classic Provencal vegetable dish, ratatouille, is one of the "meatiest" vegetarian dishes I can think of, and if it's not Italian, it's certainly Mediterranean in nature, close enough to make an amiable fit. Why not follow my standard lasagna recipe, but fashion a simple ratatouille-style melange of eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini, green peppers, onions and garlic and tomatoes and herbs, and slather on this good stuff in place of the usual sausage and beef? I did a little more recipe-tweaking, adding another veggie layer in the form of tender chopped fresh spinach, and a dash of fennel seed to provide the gentle anise character that the fennel in the sausage would normally impart, and the deed was done. The vegetarians loved their meatless lasagna, and to be honest, I took a second piece of it myself.
Here's the recipe, based on my standard lasagna procedure featured in the July 3, 2003 FoodLetter.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves six to eight)
28-ounce (800g) can Italian-style plum tomatoes
1. THE TOMATO SAUCE: Put the plum tomatoes, the tomato paste and about 1/2 cup water in a bowl and buzz with a stick or stand blender until the tomatoes are coarsely chopped. Chop one-half of the onion and 2 of the garlic cloves and heat them in half of the olive oil in a saucepan with dried red pepper flakes to taste until the vegetables are translucent. Add the chopped tomato mix and reduce heat to very low. Add the salt and pepper and the fennel seeds (lightly crushed with a mortar and pestle if you wish) and allow to simmer uncovered for a half-hour or so.
2. THE VEGETABLES: While the sauce is simmering, prepare the vegetables. Clean the spinach leaves well, steam them just until they wilt; let it cool, then chop it fine. Set aside for later assembly. Meanwhile, make a simple ratatouille. Cut the unpeeled eggplant and the zucchini into 1/2-inch cubes, wash the mushrooms and cut them into thick slices, and chop the green pepper. Put the rest of the olive oil in a saute pan with the rest of the onions and garlic and cook until translucent. Add the eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms and green pepper and cook over medium heat until the vegetables soften a little. Stir the cooked vegetables into the simmering tomato sauce and check seasoning.
3. THE CHEESES: Put the ricotta in a bowl and season to taste with freshly grated nutmeg. Grate the mozzarella into another bowl. Measure out the Parmigiano (or Pecorino or other Italian grating cheese if you prefer) into a third.
4. THE PASTA: Fill a large pasta pot or saucepan with water and add enough salt to make the water distinctly salty "like the sea." Bring to a rolling boil and put in the lasagna; cook according to package directions - typically about 10 minutes - until it's done but not overcooked, remembering that it will cook further during baking. Drain it and cover it with cold water to make it cool enough to handle.
(Just before the pasta is done, spoon about 1/4 cup of the hot cooking water into the ricotta bowl and stir until the cheese is smooth.)
5. ASSEMBLY: Put a shallow 9-by-12-inch baking pan or lasagna pan in a work space near the sink, and assemble the ratatouille, ricotta and mozzarella nearby. Put just enough ratatouille into the pan to cover the bottom, and lay in four lasagna noodles. This should be just enough to cover the bottom, with the edges overlapping slightly. Spread about one-fourth of the remaining ratatouille over the noodles, then cover with about one-fourth of the ricotta and one-fourth of the mozzarella. (Precision is not important here - just eyeball the proportions with the idea that you'll need to split the ingredients among four layers.) Continue in the same way with layers of pasta, ratatouille, ricotta and mozzarella. When you're done, spread the chopped spinach over the top and scatter the grated Parmigiano over that.
6. BAKING: Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and pop the pan into the 375F oven. Bake for 25 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove from the oven, take off the foil, and let it cool and set up for 10 to 15 minutes before you cut it into squares and serve. A loaf of crusty bread, butter and a green salad is all you need to complete the meal.
WINE MATCH: Since it was New Year's Eve, we paired this and a standard meat lasagna with the evening's celebratory wines, two rosé bubblies. Normally, however, I would make the same wine choices as I offered in the 2003 lasagna article: "A dry, acidic red wine is called for here - snappy reds sing an operatic duet with tomatoes - and while it doesn't have to be Italian, it might as well be. Chianti is the standard, but feel free to run in a Salice Salentino, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or just about any other Italian red."
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